Thursday, February 26, 2009

Citysearch is Clueless

Citysearch has done another Cheap Eats list, and as always, I have to wonder if they actually visit the restaurants before they list them.

We love Pico's, but wouldn't ever classify it as cheap. Same for Irma's, which is actually one of the more expensive places to get enchiladas in town.

Isn't the point of a Cheap Eats list to feature places that are, you know, cheap?

Go ahead and read the entire list and see for yourself.

Sorry for the rant.

Pizzashare

We've noticed an increased number of Google Mashups, and here's one dedicated to pizza lovers: PizzaShare. It's not perfect, and there's not much for Houston, but it's an interesting idea that's worth a peek.

PizzaShare

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

New Openings in Sugar Land's Town Square

Escalante's has opened its fifth Houston location in Sugar Land's bustling Town Square. Escalante's offers Tex-Mex and Mexican cuisine in a casual, upscale setting.

Swirll Frozen Yogurt is also open, offering a variety of frozen desserts and treats for kids of all ages.

This summer, Taisho will be opening a contemporary Japanese eatery in Town Square. Taisho features a variety of Japanese dishes, as well as the popular hibachi grill popularized by the Benihana chain.

New in the Museum District - Bodegas Taco Shop

Ryan Granger, owner of the Park Grill, has announced his new Mexican restaurant and tequila bar, Bodegas Taco Shop. It is scheduled to open on February 27 on the corner of Caroline at Ewing.

Bodegas will feature a variety of chicken and beef tacos, with over ten salsas to top them. Desserts will be offered as will a full bar.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Hubcap Grill - Handmade Burgers in Downtown Houston

Update: We visited Hubcap again, and now we understand what everyone's cheering about.

We'd heard outstanding things about the burger at Hubcap Grill, so we dropped by for lunch during the week. We'd seen the tiny little spot, with the outdoor seating area in a converted alley between two buildings, next door to the Alden (nee Sam Houston) Hotel. We parked across the street and went inside.

The place was busy but not packed. We ordered quickly at the counter and got a small surprise: Cash only. It's the 21st century, folks - if you're running a restaurant, get a credit card machine. Fortunately we had a bit of cash on hand, so the potential crisis was averted.

After a short wait, our burgers were delivered. The burger is a third pound beef patty, hand formed and griddled fairly flat. It was topped with a large slice of American cheese, about five strips of bacon, and fresh veggies. The bun was thoroughly toasted.

Our experience differs from most of the other reviews. The beef was fresh and flavorful, but it was cooked well done and was far too dry. The all-important ooze factor was absent. The generous amount of bacon was crisp to a fault; it was hard and crumbly, and the flavor had been cooked out of it.

There is potential for a great burger here, but it's going to require a more deft touch on the grill. We'll probably give Hubcap Grill another shot at some point, but we won't be rushing back.

Free Food Alert - Free Pancakes at IHOP Today

In celebration of Mardi Gras and Fat Tuesday, HOP is serving free short stacks of pancakes in exchange for a donation to the Children's Miracle Network. According to their site:

"All we ask is that you consider making a donation to support local children's hospitals through Children's Miracle Network, or other local charities."

The promotion runs from now until 10pm.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Should I Eat That?

We often wonder when it's necessary to discard a particular leftover. Back in college it was an easy choice; as soon as the food item began to lobby for its civil rights, we knew it probably wasn't wise to eat it. Now our fridge gets cleaned out a bit more often, and this dilemma was solved by rule of nose.

No longer. Our friends at StillTasty have compiled a database of the shelf lives of various food items. Very useful.

At Least They're American - Cullen's Upscale American Grille

Sometime you should trust your first impression.

We were out in the NASA area on a sunny Sunday, and were in the mood for a nice brunch somewhere. But we had no clue where to go. The only place that serves brunch that came to mind was Cullen's; the over-the-top restaurant offering poorly prepared Applebee's fare at inflated prices.

Maybe if we tried some things that would be difficult to ruin it would be a success? Could Cullen's pull of a respectable meal? After all, it is a striking venue, the giant stone edifice located alone in the middle of nowhere. At least we'd enjoy decent food in a pretty atmosphere.

Let's ignore our first impression, and give 'em another chance. Maybe they'll surprise us.

It was not to be.

We arrived, and were promptly seated, in the cavernous and nearly empty main room. We were again taken by the extravagance of the setting, but couldn't help notice the little things that were done poorly. A talented interior designer could make this a spectacular room; apparently none were available when Cullen's was built.

On to the food. Our plan for the day was "Keep it Simple".

We started with the Wedge salad. A wedge of bibb lettuce, bleu cheese, bacon, some roast beets... this has to be tasty. Nope. The bleu cheese was overpowered by some shockingly lemony dressing that was a bad idea, and apparently the bacon market was cornered by Allen Stanford, because the few tiny bits present couldn't be tasted amidst the lemony morass.

Next was the frito pie. On the menu it sounded very interesting; "berkshire pork & chairman's reserve beef chili, toasted corn chips, texas goat cheese, oregon cheddar, creme fraiche & scallions"

What came out was perhaps the worst frito pie we've ever sampled. The heart of the problem was the "berkshire pork & chairman's reserve beef chili". There may be a blander chili somewhere on the planet, but it's a safe bet it's not in Texas. Combine that with nearly flavorless cheese and a glop of sour cream (what does sour cream have to do with frito pie, you ask? So did we, after trying it) and you end up with a really bad rendition of this ballpark favorite. (And yes, the average little league concession stand does a better job.) The generic fritos were lacking in flavor as well, but at least they were crispy - that's the only positive we could find with this unfortunate creation.

Finally the main course: Chicken-Fried Ribeye. Served with truffle-scented country gravy, mashed potatoes and wilted greens. How can you mess up a chicken-fried steak, especially if you start with a ribeye?

You can mess it up by not trimming the lumps of fat and gristle from the cut of meat before you bread it. Our first bite was about 2/3 gristle, underneath a fairly decent hand-breaded coating. The truffle-scented country gravy seemed to be standard CFS white gravy with a bit of fake truffle oil added; as with everything else served by Cullen's, the overwhelming experience was blandness. And after the chunk of fatty gristle that was our first impression, we weren't anxious to finish the entree.

The mashed potatoes weren't bad. They weren't terribly good, but they weren't bad. For this brunch, that was a major success.

The large, round room was essentially empty; there were perhaps six parties dining there. We were seated right in front of the window to the kitchen, where staff milled around, not doing much cooking. Our waiter was an enthusiastic but clueless young man who disappeared for long periods of time, apparently not waiting on others.

At one point the general manager walked by and asked how we were enjoying lunch. He got an earful; we politely described the failed dishes they pumped out. He nodded politely but seemed essentially uninterested. He did say he was going to "take care of the the food" for us, which we assumed meant that we weren't going to be charged for this dreadful meal.

Nope.

Our check arrived, with one item (the ribeye) comped. "Didn't like" was the reason. I suppose there was no button for "Utter Failure in the Kitchen" on Cullen's no doubt state-of-the-art point-of-sale system.

Or perhaps there was, and it was worn out from overuse.

Post-Mortem: The items described on the menu actually could have been quite good had they been executed successfully, with the meat properly trimmed and the dishes properly seasoned. Perhaps if they invested a bit less in the over-the-top setting and a bit more in training the kitchen staff, they could improve things.

With a great deal of rework and attention, Cullen's could one day be a mediocre establishment. But don't hold your breath.

Cullen's Upscale American Grille on Urbanspoon

Friday, February 20, 2009

Recession Dining Deals in Houston


A new site has popped up devoted to dining deals in Houston. Unlike most of this ilk, it's all about deals at high-end restaurants - you won't find the Seniors Special at Denny's in this list.

If you like great food and great deals, check it out.

Ike Recovery Continues - Stingaree Reopens

Bolivar's landmark Stingaree restaurant has reopened after being seriously damaged by Hurricane Ike. For Bolivar residents it's a sign that the area is moving back toward normalcy. For the rest of us it means that some of the best seafood on the Gulf Coast is available again, including the signature Oysters Jubilee.

Read more in The Houston Chronicle.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Sliders in the Sun - Little Bigs

We've been hearing the buzz about Little Bigs, the burger shack from Bryan Caswell, the mastermind behind the hot midtown spot Reef. They recently extended their hours to include lunch, so we stopped in to check 'em out.

Little Bigs is located in the old Ming's location on Montrose near Westheimer. They've really brightened up the place, sprucing up the deck and installing a bunch of large picnic tables. Indoor seating is limited and packed in tightly; if you dine inside on a busy day, you'll be making new friends.

Ordering is a snap: Choose between three varieties of sliders: Beef, chicken, or mushroom. Add some fries, and your choice of beverage, including shakes and a variety of alcoholic options. Then wait. And if they're busy, the wait can be 15-20 minutes, as it was for us this beautiful Sunday afternoon.

Our name was called, and we went to claim our sliders.

We had been disappointed with the beef sliders at Reef, but the ones served here at Little Bigs were a revelation. Cooked medium well, the mini-burgers remained deliciously juicy, with just the right amount of ooze. Grilled onions perched atop the beef, and a bit of American cheese formed the perfect finale. The whole assembly is perched atop a small yeasty roll, and the result is Slider Nirvana.

We also sampled the chicken slider: A crispy fried piece of chicken breast, seasoned with Cajun spices, served atop the same yeasty rolls. Tasty, but they play second fiddle to the superb beef sliders. (We didn't try the mushroom option.)

Chef Caswell has a winner in Little Bigs. We look forward to watching this mini-burger empire spread across Houston; a second location in Hermann park is already in the works.

Free Taco Alert - Two Free Tacos at Jack in the Box next Tuesday


We're not sure if they're actually food, but we love Jack in the Box tacos. And now Jack is returning the love, offering a coupon for two free tacos next Tuesday, February 24th.

It's part of their "Save Jack" marketing campaign. We do hope Jack gets better, but if his recovery means free tacos, we hope it's a very long, protracted process.

HoustonWok - A blog you should follow

Foodies in Houston are lucky to have so many interesting food blogs to read. We've found another great one - HoustonWok. The blog focuses on dining in and around Southwest Houston, with an emphasis on Asian cuisine. We particularly enjoy the original photography that peppers the posts.

If you're heading into New Chinatown for a culinary adventure, a brief perusal of HoustonWok would be time well spent.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Statewide Ban of Smoking in Public Places Gains TRA Support

The Texas Restaurant Association, a long-time smoking ban opponent, is now supporting a ban. The TRA's board of directors voted to formally support the measure.

Restaurant owners have long been opposed to smoking bans, due to the perception of a decrease in business. But many association members have changed their minds because individual city bans have created a statewide patchwork of legislation.

In a poll of group members two years ago, the majority were in favor of a ban that leveled the playing field.

The bills (House Bill 5 and Senate Bill 544) would ban smoking in public places statewide, including restaurants, bars, shopping malls and sports arenas.

More from the Fort Worth Star Telegram.

Brian Caswell's Blog

Brian Caswell, the chef and owner of Reef and Little Bigs, has created a blog. In his words

"The food, cooking and coastal culture of the South are just a natural part of who and how I am as a person, chef and restaurateur. Whole Fish gives me a chance to do what I do best…show off: to brag about my hometown -- Houston and the surrounding Gulf Coast area -- as the best place in the world to live, work and eat."

Whole Fish

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Ominvore's 100

Here's a fun exercise for the devoted foodie.

Here’s what you do:

1) Copy this list into your blog or journal, including these instructions.
2) Bold all the items you’ve eaten.
3) Cross out any items that you would never consider eating.

The VGT Omnivore’s Hundred:

1. Venison
2. Nettle tea
3. Huevos rancheros
4. Steak tartare
5. Crocodile
6. Black pudding
7. Cheese fondue
8. Carp
9. Borscht
10. Baba ghanoush
11. Calamari
12. Pho
13. PB&J sandwich
14. Aloo gobi
15. Hot dog from a street cart
16. Epoisses
17. Black truffle
18. Fruit wine made from something other than grapes
19. Steamed pork buns
20. Pistachio ice cream
21. Heirloom tomatoes
22. Fresh wild berries
23. Foie gras
24. Rice and beans
25. Brawn, or head cheese
26. Raw Scotch Bonnet pepper
27. Dulce de leche
28. Oysters
29. Baklava
30. Bagna cauda
31. Wasabi peas
32. Clam chowder in a sourdough bowl
33. Salted lassi
34. Sauerkraut
35. Root beer float
36. Cognac with a fat cigar
37. Clotted cream tea
38. Vodka jelly/Jell-O
39. Gumbo
40. Oxtail
41. Curried goat
42. Whole insects
43. Phaal
44. Goat’s milk
45. Malt whisky from a bottle worth £60/$120 or more
46. Fugu
47. Chicken tikka masala
48. Eel
49. Krispy Kreme original glazed doughnut
50. Sea urchin
51. Prickly pear
52. Umeboshi
53. Abalone
54. Paneer
55. McDonald’s Big Mac Meal
56. Spaetzle
57. Dirty gin martini
58. Beer above 8% alcohol
59. Poutine
60. Carob chips
61. S’mores
62. Sweetbreads
63. Kaolin
64. Currywurst
65. Durian
66. Frogs’ legs
67. Beignets, churros, elephant ears or funnel cake
68. Haggis
69. Fried plantain
70. Chitterlings, or andouillette
71. Gazpacho
72. Caviar and blini
73. Louche absinthe
74. Gjetost, or brunost
75. Roadkill
76. Baijiu
77. Hostess Fruit Pie
78. Snail
79. Lapsang souchong
80. Bellini
81. Tom yum
82. Eggs Benedict
83. Pocky
84. Tasting menu at a three-Michelin-star restaurant.
85. Kobe beef
86. Hare
87. Goulash
88. Flowers
89. Horse
90. Criollo chocolate
91. Spam
92. Soft shell crab
93. Rose harissa
94. Catfish
95. Mole poblano
96. Bagel and lox
97. Lobster Thermidor
98. Polenta
99. Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee
100. Snake

(Thank you to MyTable Magazine for passing along this great list, originally from English blogger, Andrew Wheeler, at Very Good Taste.

Tex-Mex Revelation - Sylvia's Enchilada Kitchen


Houston is a great city for Mexican food. From the humble taco truck to elegant fine dining establishments, Houston has the entire spectrum of Mexican food experiences covered. And everyone has their favorites.

We've been hearing buzz about a little place way out Westheimer, Sylvia's Enchilada Kitchen. So we made the trek out to see what all the fuss is about.

Sylvia's has an unassuming strip center location, in an older strip center well beyond the Beltway. But don't be fooled by the modest exterior; open the door and you're transported to the border, where the nights are hot and the food is hotter.

Sylvia Casares is the name behind Sylvia's, and she was recognized as one of the top Latino chefs working in the United States by the Spanish-language magazine Siempre Mujer. She's brought the food from her native Lower Rio Grande Valley to Houston, and created dishes that span Anglo and Mexican culture. Those who view Tex-Mex cuisine as some sort of inferior stepchild to other Mexican cuisines need only to sample Sylvia's cooking to have the attitudes adjusted.

As with most Mexican establishments, you start with chips and salsa. Sylvia's chips are fresh and warm, and the salsa is a thin, housemade and savory. We had to remind ourselves to save room for the enchiladas.

As one would guess from the name, Sylvia's specialty is enchiladas, and there is a wide range to choose from -- no less than 18 different styles.

Sylvia helpfully offers two different sampler platters, each with four different petite enchiladas. For this first visit, we selected her North of the Border sampler.

First we sampled the Refugio - a basic cheese enchilada made with blended cheddar cheeses and topped with chili gravy. It was a good enchilada; smooth and spicy with a moderate amount of heat from the gravy.

Next came the Lubbock - a ground beef enchilada with Sylvia's Signature Gravy, a meatier take on regular chili gravy. Carnivores will love this enchilada; there is plenty of beef both inside and out, and the seasonings are masterfully balanced to provide heat that does not overpower.

Cheese enchiladas and beef enchiladas are Tex-Mex staples. After this things get creative.

We dove into the Laguna Madre - fresh crab enchiladas topped with a creamy seafood sauce. This delicious enchilada was stuffed with plenty of juicy lump crab meat, and the creamy sauce had a bit of a kick to it. If you're a seafood lover, this enchilada is one you can't miss.

Finally came the most unusual enchilada - the Sarita. A vegetarian enchilada filled with a combination of calabacita (summer squash) corn, and mild cheese, topped with a light cream sauce. The fresh flavor of the vegetables combined with the rich, savory cream sauce and the result was one of the best enchiladas we can remember tasting.

Sylvia's was busy on the night we visited, but service was professional, prompt and friendly. Prices are a touch higher than one might expect for Tex-Mex dishes, but we feel that the quality more than makes up for the extra $2-3 per plate.

All in all, we think that Sylvia's is one of Houston's best Mexican restaurants, and if you've not visited, you're missing out on a meal that any lover of Mexican food will enjoy.

Sylvia's Enchilada Kitchen: 12637 Westheimer Road, Houston, 77077, 281-679-8300

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Blast from the Past: Cue's Burgers & More

Cue's Burgers & More is another blast-from-the-past restaurant located on S. Post Oak, the Street That Time Forgot.

Walk into the strip center location, and the feel is more of a small town cafe than a restaurant in a major metropolitan area. Cue's is the place where local social clubs meet, and where the police grab a bite during their shift.

Their burgers are pretty good, but not amazing. Thin machine-formed beef patty, griddled flat, and served on a generic bun with the usual topics. We had no luck getting them less than well done, so the ooze factor was factored out. But still a step or three ahead of what you'll find at a typical fast food chain.

Cue's offers a full breakfast menu, and a variety of other dishes. Best thing we've found there are the excellent pork chops - they're not huge, but they're nicely seasoned and flavorful.

If you're looking for a reasonably-priced meal in a very relaxed setting, you can do a lot worse than Cue's if you're on S. Post Oak.

Cue's Burgers & More: 10423 S Post Oak Rd, Houston, 77035, 713-726-0313

Aw Shucks

Eating Our Words, the Houston Press Food Blog, is a source that we read religiously, both for the solid information and the entertaining prose.

We were surprised and honored to be mentioned in this post, a listing of interesting Twitter feeds for foodies. And we were in some very impressive company.

Thank you.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Congratulations to 2009 James Beard Award Semifinalists

Houston was not ignored when the list of James Beard Award semifinalists was announced by the James Beard Foundation.

Local honorees:

Outstanding Restaurateur - Jim Goode and Levi Goode - Goode Company Restaurants

Best New Restaurant - Feast

Best Chef (Southwest) - Brian Caswell, Reef

Congratulations to all the nominees. The award ceremony is May 4 in New York City.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Spicy Pickle Targets Houston


Spicy Pickle, the fast casual sandwich spot from Denver, announced that its new Houston franchisee has signed a lease for their first site and is actively pursuing additional locations. The first site is scheduled to open in the spring of this year.

From their web site:

"Spicy Pickle restaurants serve high quality meats and fine Italian Artisan breads along with a wide choice of 10 different cheeses, 21 different toppings, and 15 proprietary spreads to create healthy and delicious panini and sub sandwiches with flavors from around the world. There are over 150,000 delicious sandwich combinations for you to create, along with 8 specialty panini sandwiches that have become favorites of our customers."

Nationwide, the company notes that development has slowed considerably for the Spicy Pickle chain in the United States, but some expansion possibilities continue to exist. Bank financing for new franchise opportunities is simply not available in the current climate, and expansion will continue to be limited until capital becomes more readily available.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Houston on a Budget

When money is tight, what cool things can you find to do in Houston? The Tribune (the local paper in Atascocita, Humble, and Kingwood) posted a great story on its web site with some wonderfully inexpensive ideas.

Examples:

"It’s hard to beat Saturday afternoon tours at the Saint Arnold Brewery. For $5, fans receive a beer tasting glass from which they can enjoy Saint Arnold’s 10 different beers—our money is on the Lawn Mower—and a tour of the facility. Stay tuned for the biz to move to a bigger location later this year."

"Visit the hippest cinema in H-Town. With screenings everywhere from rooftops to junkyards, Aurora Picture Show is Ground Zero for new media artists. Expect irreverent indie-films like the recent Obama music video Change You Can Dance To and Toy Punks—a documentary on Japanese toys, fashion and punk rock. Admission for regular screenings is $6. Visit www.aurorapictureshow.org to view the event calendar."

"Set sail on a free, 90-minute tour of the Port of Houston. While on board the 90-passenger boat, you’ll learn about the history of the seaport and be able to watch ocean freighters and barges navigate the 50-mile channel. The tour is free, but reservations are required."

Many more ideas are discussed in the article.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Brick House Tavern


Attention to all fans of 70's funk, attractive women, and man food: Brick House Tavern & Tap has opened a location on Highway 290 in northwest Houston.

Following in the footsteps of Hooters, Brick House is a new example of the "brestaurant" concept that is gaining in popularity. Combining guy-friendly comfort food, a "man cave" atmosphere, and an attractive, all-female waitstaff, Brick House is positioned as a guy's home-away-from-home, a place where he can relax with his buddies and behave in an un-politically-correct manner.

Beer selection includes tableside micro-kegs, 40 ounce bottled beers, 100 oz beer bongs, and hand-pulled cask beer.

Brick House Tavern & Tap, 12910 Hwy 290, Houston, 77040, 713-462-0576, brickhousetavernandtap.com

The County Line - Upscale BBQ import from Austin

I maintain that the best BBQ is found in little ramshackle shacks located in small towns off the beaten path in Nowhere County, Texas. So why do I like the County Line?

They do a good job at pretty much everything. Inviting, faux-camp decor. Friendly, professional waitstaff. And BBQ that's plenty good, and better than pretty much any other chain that I can name.

I started at County Line when I lived in Austin, and frequented both locations. The concept has made the trip down Hwy 290 with its goodness intact.

What to order? My favorite here are the baby back pork ribs. A full rack is large; a half rack is plenty for most folks. In either case you get some tender (but not falling-off-the-bone) meaty pork ribs, nicely prepared and doused with a sweet-but-not-too-sweet sauce. Beef lovers will be thrilled with their gigantic beef ribs, served with a sauce that's not quite as sweet, and the brisket is very good too.

Bread is another high point here. Why pay for bread in a BBQ joint? Because it's homemade and superb, fluffy and sweet and when topped with the provided honey butter it's a decadent addition to the carnivorous offerings on the table.

What's not to like? It's a bit more expensive than some places, but the prices aren't out of line for a sit-down meal; this one just happens to consist of very good BBQ.

County Line is a great choice for those who love great BBQ, especially if our town's more elemental BBQ joints are a bit too edgy for them.

The County Line: 13850 Cutten Rd, Houston, 77069, 281-537-2454

Luby's Gives Houston a Birthday Present

Luby's, the Houston-based cafeteria chain, is celebrating its birthday by offering a present to its customers.

On Fridays and Saturdays in February, Luby's famous LuAnn platter will be half price, making it a legitimate bargain, and less expensive than the combo meal at your local McBurger place.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Pizza Pizza - Two new Pizzarias

Grimaldi's Pizza, the legendary Brooklyn pizza joint, has opened its first establishment in the Houston area. Located across the Southwest Freeway from Sugar Land's First Colony mall, Grimaldi's has been delighting local residents with their three types of pizza: Red (traditional margharita) White (with garlic) and Green (with pesto). Prices aren't cheap, but for those seeking NY-style pizza, it's a lot cheaper than a plane ticket to La Guardia.

Closer to town, Russo's New York Coal-Fired Pizza has opened their second location on I-10 at Echo Lane. Befitting it's Memorial location this is a higher-end pizza joint, with a beautiful interior that complement the crowd-pleasing coal-fired pizza.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Bad News for BBQ Fans - Thelma's Goes Up in Smoke

Thelma's Bar-B-Que, the landmark Houston BBQ spot was seriously damaged over the weekend by fire. They are closed until further notice, and there's no word about when and if Thelma will rebuild and reopen.

We at H-Town Chow Down wish Miss Thelma the best during this difficult time, and look forward to her reopening her legendary establishment.

Robb Walsh gives us the sordid details.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Free Food Today at Denny's

In a burst of generosity, Denny's is offering a free Grand Slam breakfast from 6am to 2pm today. The promotion was announced in an advertisement during the Super Bowl.

The free meal is available for dine in only.

Mia Bella Trattoria opens in Vintage Park

Mia Bella, the popular downtown restaurant, has opened a branch in the Vintage Park shopping center, Hwy 249 at Louetta. Vintage Park is a themed outdoor shopping center along the lines of Market Street in the Woodlands or Town Square in Sugar Land.

Mia Bella is part of Youssef Nafaa's Bella Restaurant Group, which also operates Collin's Chop House, Cava Bistro, CoCo's Crepes & Coffee, Saffron Moroccan Cuisine and Cielo Mexican Bistro.

Another Mia Bella is planned for the new Pavillion center in downtown Houston.

More info: bellarestaurants.com

Monday, February 2, 2009

Tony's - The Truffle Tasting


Truffles. That elusive ingredient that can transform an already excellent dish to another plane. Rich, earthy, musky, rare and delicious. We were having a craving for truffles, so we went to the place we knew would be offering them: Tony's.

Tony's is the iconic Houston fine dining restaurant. It has been the preferred destination for the city's glitterati for many years, but some foodies grumbled that the cuisine was too staid, too traditional, too boring.

In our experience, nothing could be farther from the truth. My guess is that these foodies have never dined at Tony's, and that is their loss.

Tony Vallone is a master restaurateur, and he periodically reinvents the restaurant, making it fresh and new, but never gets caught up in the fly-by-night trends that tempt the less savvy host. And the Vallone touch is evident on every plate that exits the kitchen... this attention to detail is a key that separates Tony's from Houston's other fine dining establishments.

The latest incarnation of Tony's resides at the beautiful Richmond and Timmons location that Tony's occupied after decades on Post Oak. Built from the ground up to Tony Vallone's exacting specifications, this dramatic setting was the backdrop for our truffle degustation.

Executive Chef Francesco Casetta's kitchen is firing on all cylinders, and created a variety of dishes that flowed together like movements in a symphony. Several featured the ethereal truffle as an ingredient.

We started with a simple Tortelloni Bolognese - housemade pasta stuffed with three cheeses and draped in Tony's superb bolognese meat sauce. The flavors are bold yet smooth, and this dish warmed up our senses for the upcoming courses.

Next was my favorite appetizer - Paglia e Fieno. A deceptively simple dish featuring fresh ribbons of green and white tagliatelle, drizzled with a light cream sauce and accented with thin slices of fresh black truffles. Simple and superlative.

We then tried something more exotic - Tagliarini with Sicilian Sea Urchin. Smooth strands of tagliarini were tossed in a light creamy sauce of pinot grigio and alba mushrooms, and mixed with chunks of sea urchin. The dish was surprisingly spicy; the heat was balanced by the creamy pasta. It was something we'd never experienced before, but would gladly order again.

Our final appetizer is one we can rarely pass up at Tony's - the Japanese-influenced Ribbons and Squares. Fresh, sushi-grade blue fin tuna prepared two ways: perfect thumb-sized cubes, and thin, pasta-like ribbons formed into a cylindrical shape. The tuna is accented with fresh avocado puree and a tangy soy-lime vinaigrette. We love sushi, and the balance of this dish speaks to a bright future if the Vallones ever decide to open a sushi bar.

After these delicious entrees, it was time for the main course. More truffles were called for, so we ordered the rich Stuffed Truffled Filet of Beef. This may be the best steak in the city - a large, thick filet of USDA Prime beef, naturally aged for 40 days, and stuffed with black truffle butter. The truffle flavor infuses the beef, and the combination is greater than the sum of the parts.

On the side we asked for the oven-roasted truffled potatoes and the decadent truffled macaroni & cheese. These side dishes accented the steak very nicely, and we were awash in the aroma and flavor of truffles.

We barely had room for dessert, but missing the souffle at Tony's seems like a crime. This time we selected the rich bananas foster souffle, which was a delightful finish to an unforgettable meal.

My waistline won't tolerate a meal like this every day, but I'll be looking forward to the next gastronomical adventure at Tony's. The restaurant never disappoints.

Tony's: 3755 Richmond Avenue, Houston, 77046, 713-622-6778
TonysHouston.com

Tony's Restaurant on Urbanspoon